Marxism and the Open Mind


John Lewis

Distributed by Transaction Books
A Division of Transaction Inc.
Rutgers University, New Brunswick, N. J. 08903

Copyright 1957
by Routledge and Kegan Paul Ltd.
First published in the U.S.A.
by Paine-Whitman Publishers
1182 Broadway
New York 1, New York

Printed in Great Britain
by Butler and Tanner Ltd.
Frome and London


page   vii
Acknowledgments  xviii
1. Idealism and Ideologies  1
2. Historical Inevitability  24
3. On Human Rights 53
4. Marxism and Liberty 77
5. Marxism and Ethics   94
6. The Marxist Answer to the Challenge of Our Time 132
7. Marxist Humanism  144
8. Sartre and Society   163
9. Berdyaev, Socialist and Heretic  185
10. Communism the Heir to the Christian Tradition  193
Index of Proper Names 221


Marxism has since 1918 passed through two phases as far as its general understanding in the West is concerned. At first, and for most of the time, studied neglect or grotesque misrepresentation.

It has been said that the normal English reaction to uncomfortable facts of life, such as Marxism, is an embarrassed but determined silence. That anyone should experience a desire to enquire into ideas as such, and to probe into the motives influencing them, seems extraordinary.

‘The persistent neglect of Marxism by our intellectual leaders is one of the most shameful phenomena of the long and gloomy twilight of liberal humanism in Britain. What is damning evidence of the general degeneration of intellectual standards in Britain is the fact that for nearly fifty years after Marx’s death, when in every other civilized nation except the U.S.A. his doctrines were being seriously debated in academic and intellectual circles, the success of the conspiracy of silence in Britain was ensured, not so much by consciously political motives, as by the plumb ignorance of the conspirators.’ [1]

After the Second World War, however, and the spread of communism through Eastern Europe and China, it became clear that Marxism was a theory to be reckoned with. The first recognition of the fact in this country was the preparation by Mr. Carew Hunt of a document which was circulated in the Foreign Office and subsequently published as The Theory and Practice of Communism. This, and the pamphlet issued by the United States Congressional Committee on Foreign Affairs in 1948 entitled The Strategy and Tactics of World Communism, were serious studies which went back to the Marxist texts and attempted to present the Marxist theory fairly and objectively. The theory  thus set forth has now been recognized by many

1 Douglas Garman, in Modern Quarterly, Vol 3.


sociologists as ‘one of the greatest individual achievements of sociology to this day.’ [1] Professor Butterfield says that ‘The Marxists, in spite of those uncouthnesses which are always a stumbling block to tidy, academic minds, have contributed more to the historical scholarship of all of us than the non-Marxists like to confess.’ [2] Marxism, he says, ‘offers a corrective to that older view which evaded fundamental problems by seeing history as a field for the activity of disembodied ideas—ideas that were treated as irreducible, that is to say, as being the starting point rather than the consequence of change . . . a materialist interpretation is useful insofar as it is the definition of the right kind of feeling to have at the beginning of an enquiry, a hint as to the right end of the stick to pick up, a guide to the predisposition with which to approach an unimaginably complicated collection of data’. [3]

Marxism makes no claim to present the world with a closed system. It is offered rather as a working hypothesis to be constantly modified as a result of its application to changing historical conditions. As Engels said: ‘Our conception of history is above all a guide to study, not a lever for instruction after the manner of the Hegelians. All history must be studied afresh, the conditions of existence of the different formations of society must be individually examined before the attempt is made to deduce from them the political, civil-legal, aesthetic, philosophic, religious, etc. notions corresponding to them. But instead of this only too many simply make use of the phrase, historical materialism (and everything can be turned into a phrase), in order to get their own relatively scanty knowledge fitted together into a neat system as quickly as possible.’ [4] Marxism has therefore always been a changing and developing theory. The very meaning of dialectics is that by applying it in practice effects are produced which must bring about a modification of the theory. Then the changed theory will demand a new application.

It is now realized by an increasing number of scholars that Marx made an outstanding contribution to the theory of social

1 Schumpeter, Socialism, Capitalism and Democracy.

2 Butterfield, Christianity and History.

3 Butterfield, History and Human Relations.

4 Marx-Engels Correspondence. Letter to Schmidt 5 August, 1890.


development when he saw society as an unstable equilibrium making for constant change. He attempted to show that three factors were responsible for social development—firstly, improvement in technique (from the hand-loom to the textile factory), secondly, the corresponding change in the type of human relationship involved in production (from the self-employed craftsman to the capitalist employed worker), thirdly, the growing economic and political power of a new social group (in this case the employers), which eventually remakes society in its own image. Marx worked this out with a great wealth of detail for the rise of modern industrialism.

What has been lacking in contemporary Marxism is the modification and re-formulation of this theory in the light of historical study, the contemporary economic situation, and the development of modern science. ‘Nature is the test of dialectics,’ said Engels. ‘It is possible to reach the dialectical conception of nature because the accumulating facts of natural science compel us to do so.’ And in its application to society ‘It is no longer a question anywhere of inventing inter-connections out of our own brains, but of discovering them in the facts.’ All that the theory can hope to do is to give a general skeleton of the Marxist conception: ‘The proof is to be found in history itself.’ [1]

What this suggests is the need for a much greater interpenetration of Marxism and contemporary thought than we have seen as yet. The idea behind these essays is that such mutual influence is possible and desirable and would be of profit to both. Marxism has a contribution to make in many fields, but it is equally true that Marxism has much to learn from non-Marxist thought. If dialectics is a deduction from historical and scientific facts then two things should follow, firstly, history and science as objective studies, ought to become more and more dialectical, and Marxist theory ought to be of assistance in analysing and interpreting the available data. ‘We read the the truth more easily if we approach the dialectical character of these facts equipped with the consciousness of the laws of dialectical thought.’ [1] On the other hand the unfolding of historical and scientific truth should enrich and exemplify Marxism, and at the same time constantly require a development and revision of Marxist theory.

1 Engels, Anti-Dühring.


There are, however, grave difficulties in the way of this drawing together of Marxist and non-Marxist thought. The first reason for this is that Marxism, as is well known, is very far from being a speculative theory with no relevance to concrete problems; on the contrary it closely unites practice with theory. It follows that if theory draws near to Marxism its political consequences will become apparent and this may cause embarrassment. As a consequence there may well be a half-conscious reluctance to pursue a tendency of thought which leads in that direction.

For a similar reason it may be felt that the safest and least disturbing kind of philosophy, will be that which confines itself to formal logical studies or purely speculative matters; while in history there will be a preference for descriptive or empirical studies and an avoidance of tendentious theories. It is dangerous to use history to obtain an understanding of the political, social and economic world in which we live, because it tends to produce a belief in the need for change, and this opens the door to socialism. [1]

When modern thought is keenly aware of the dilemmas and tragedies of the modern world but at the same time unwilling to accept an explanation that involves radical social reconstruction it will move in a direction leading to pessimism and irrationalism. Professor Paul Tillich declares that ‘It is not an exaggeration to say that today man experiences his present situation in terms of disruption, conflict, self-destruction, meaninglessness and despair in all realms of life. This experience is expressed in the arts and in literature, conceptualized in existential philosophy, actualized in political cleavages of all kinds, and analysed in the psychology of the unconscious.’ [2]

All critical thought must become conscious of the dilemmas of our time, the frustration and insuperable obstacles which confront us. If it regards the present social framework as part of the unalterable nature of things and the social and economic forces as objective and inescapable realities, what solution is possible? The form of contemporary society will itself prevent the solution of the very problems which critical enquiry raises. The more penetrating the thought the more violent the collision

1 Aptheker, History and Reality.

2 Tillich, The Protestant Era.


with social reality, the more insuperable the limitations with which it is confronted. The result may be the posing of a contradiction which cannot be overcome, leading to conviction of irrationality or intractability in the very nature of things—thus emerges a philosophy itself as limited and frustrated as the world it fails to understand. Alternatively it may be realized that this situation needs to be resolved not by an effort of thought which finds a theoretical solution for an irrational situation, but by changing the situation itself. Thus philosophy reaches a point at which it must burst the fetters of the ideology which reflects the contemporary social structure. This ideology takes many forms: It may despair of any rational world view, remaining content with a bare acceptance of brute facts; it may treat the world as the scene of blind interacting forces, abandonmg any idea of an unfolding purpose in life; finally it may take refuge from an inexplicable world in some form of mysticism. These are the limitations imposed on philosophy by the present world situation unless it is realized how the deadlock may be broken.

However, if science and philosophy can escape from the limitations of the present world order and resolutely extend their scope to embrace a full understanding of life, if they deal honestly with man and society, they will break through the trammels of mechanism, empiricism and mysticism and their conclusions will draw nearer to those of Marxism.

The Communist Manifesto speaks of a small section of the ruling class which cuts itself adrift from the dying world; a portion of the bourgeois ideologists who have raised themselves to the level of comprehending theoretically the historical movements as a whole.

This has indeed been the case; very many intellectuals have become Marxists. But is it not very likely to be the case that others will not travel the whole way but nevertheless break with sceptical and mystical philosophies, accept the necessity for social change, and move parallel with Marxism or in the same general direction?

In his pamphlet What is to be Done? Lenin declared that ‘the theory of socialism grew out of the philosophic, historical and economic theories that were elaborated by the educated representatives of the propertied classes, the intellectuals. . .. The


vehicles of science are not the proletariat but the bourgeois intelligentsia. . . . Without German philosophy, scientific socialism would never have come into existence.’ If this was possible in the days before Marxism, is it impossible for certain tendencies in contemporary Western non-Marxist thought to move in the same direction and make their own contribution to contemporary working-class theory?

It may be replied that since Marxism is already here no such contribution is now needed, bourgeois thought has only to discover the truth awaiting its acceptance. That might be so if Marxism were already a complete and satisfactory system, but in its imperfect and insufficiently developed condition it can make no such claim. Nor will it be in a position to do so until it takes cognizance of modern thought and enlarges and improves its philosophy and its science.

What stands in the way is the very strong partisanship and dogmatism of modern Marxism. Fortunately, this shows signs of modification, it has now been recognized that ‘A certain dogmatism, rigidity and sectarianism in our approach and thinking have created unnecessary obstacles to united work and discussion.’ [1]

No doubt in periods of struggle and transition when great issues are fought out in ideological as well as political forms, opposing theories are apt to become rigid, over-simplified and sharply differentiated. But the consolidation of a philosophy into unalterable dogma hinders the task of endless development, revision and the incorporation of new truths. Marxism is not in the position of having nothing to learn from modern thought and it is suffering from its isolation.

The partisanship advocated by Zhdanov in 1947 required Soviet Philosophers to ‘lead the struggle against the depravity and vileness of bourgeois ideology, and deal it shattering blows’. He went on to characterize all pre-Marxist philosophy as ‘divorced from life and from the people, and alien to them’, as hostile to science and as ‘forcing on living human knowledge conclusions that were dictated, not by real life, but by the needs of their particular systems. This philosophy was useless as an instrument of practical influence upon the world, as a

1 Lessons of the Twentieth Congress of the C.P.S.U. in the resolution adopted by the Executive Committee of the C.P.G.B. on May 13th.


means whereby the world would be known.’ [1] This is very far from the truth. There is hardly a philosopher from Descartes to Kant who was not deeply interested in science. Indeed the revolutions in philosophy from the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries were occasioned by the discoveries of Galileo, Newton and Darwin. The great philosophies have also been closely linked with social and political movements, particularly those of Hobbes, Locke, Bentham and Mill. German Romanticism had social roots and an influence, far outside the ranks of philosophy. Neither Fichte nor Schelling nor Hegel were uninfluential in German social and political thought.

This philistine approach cannot but antagonize the modern mind, nor does it presage any appreciation of what contemporary bourgeois thought may have to offer; in fact the attitude to the philosophers of our own time is hostile and undiscriminating. We are told that ‘even the most “scientific” bourgeois philosophy does not present the least semblance of a scientific view of the world’, that ‘Marxism adopts a combative attitude towards all bourgeois philosophy’.

Unfortunately the comprehensiveness of the condemnation does not allow us to restrict ‘bourgeois’ philosophy to those particular philosophies which reflect the decadent and irrationalist tendencies which characterize our Western society. The term explicitly covers every form of contemporary thought, the scientific and anti-metaphysical schools no less than the various forms of irrationalism and idealism.

This is to ignore undoubted progressive tendencies in modern thought, especially in the anti-metaphysical philosophies and the naturalistic schools of philosophy. The error is to draw a geographical line between East and West, the truth being that vital thinking is found everywhere in the world today and that bourgeois (sc. contemporary Western) thought is itself split from top to bottom into what may roughly be called progressive and reactionary tendencies.

As we have tried to show, the situation in the non-socialist world confronts the honest thinker with a dilemma. He cannot but find himself confronted by the limits of his social system, and if he cannot bring himself to the point of challenging the very basis of his society his thought will necessarily become

[1] Zhdanov, ‘on the History of Philosophy’ (Bolshevik, 1947, No. 16).


involved in difficulties and he will be found turning to various forms of escapism and defeatism. This is bourgeois philosophy in the sense that it is the philosophy of those who cling to bourgeois social principles in the period of the decay of bourgeois society. But within that society are other tendencies strongly criticizing this decadent bourgeois philosophy and struggling to free themselves from irrationalism and superstition. Marxism should welcome the help of competent and forthright philosophizing of this sort which can supplement and enlarge the basic Marxist criticism of bourgeois ideology. [1] At the same time Marxism can help progressive thought to get clearer, to free itself more thoroughly from relics of obsolete philosophizing, to grasp the basic principles of social transformation.

But can this co-operation be effected if we condemn ‘bourgeois’ philosophy as a defence of class interests, as merely a pathological symptom of degeneracy, or a rationalization of class interests?

This has been properly condemned by Popper as ‘the fashion of not taking arguments seriously, and at their face value, at least tentatively, but of seeing in them nothing but a way in which deeper irrational motives and tendencies express themselves. It is the attitude of socio-analysis—the attitude of looking at once for the unconscious motives and determinants in the social habitat of the thinker, instead of first examining the validity of the argument itself.’ [2]

This attitude is only justified if no arguments are offered in defence of such a position, in that case ‘we are justified in making the charge of irrationalism’. Popper goes on to say that Toynbee’s neglect to face up to the arguments for positions of which he disapproves is not only a case in point but ‘is representative of a twentieth-century intellectualism which expresses its disillusionments, or even despair, of reason and of a rational solution of our social problems, by an escape into religious mysticism’. [3]

Popper, who is himself a severe critic of Marxism, but on rational grounds, proceeds to take Toynbee to task for his refusal to consider seriously the rational arguments or claims of

1 This is true not only in respect of philosophy, but of all forms of bourgeois thought—economics, political theory, literary criticism, etc.

2 Popper, The Open Society, Vol. II, p. 238.

3 Ibid.


Marxism, and for seeking to explain it and dispose of it on purely psychological grounds. But if Marxists agree with Popper that this is really intellectual dishonesty and always invites a similar counter-charge, they themselves must not attempt to dispose of bourgeois philosophies for which an argued case is presented by brushing them aside, without examining those arguments, as so much ‘bourgeois ideology’.

It is only when Marxist philosophy faces its opponents rationally that it will be listened to, and only when it honestly examines rival systems and theories critical of Marxism that it will find the truth in these views wherewith to correct or improve its own system. John Stuart Mill used to say that it is the most reasonable rather than the absurdest form of a wrong opinion with which one ought to grapple and that we stand little chance of discovering what truth such opinions may contain if we merely attack their weaker aspects. We should be particularly careful not to fall into the error of ‘representing the position of an opponent in the terms it would have if the critic held it; that is, not in its own terms, but after translation into the terms of another and opposed theory has taken place’. [1] No one more than Marxists have suffered from this sort of thing; but neither have they been guiltless of the same fault themselves.

When contemporary philosophy is approached in this spirit insofar as it is wrong it will be more successfully refuted, insofar as it has valid criticisms we can set our own house in order, and insofar as it has truth we can accept that truth with gratitude. Only in this spirit shall we be able to combine the heritage of Western culture with the new insights of Marxism. Maurice Cornforth has declared that ‘the positive achievements of classical bourgeois philosophy, and its progressive humanistic spirit, were inherited and carried forward by Marxism’. This will be so only if those achievements are continually re-studied and re-estimated. He adds that ‘they have been renounced and betrayed by bourgeois philosophy in the period of the decadence of capitalism’. This is true of that type of philosophy which is entangled in the contradictions of capitalism, but not of the progressive tendencies in contemporary thought. Zhdanov himself has told us that Marxism ‘is a living, creative doctrine continually developing, continually enriched by experience and by

[1] Dewey, in Naturalism and the Human Spirit, edited by Krikorian, p. 12.


the achievements of natural science’. Unfortunately, his influence has not been in this direction whether because of a certain lack of understanding of the philosophies of the non-Russian world or because he unwittingly encouraged the more philistine elements in the Marxism of our times.

Certainly, however, the time has come to develop and enrich our Marxism. Without this Marxism becomes sterile, just as non-Marxist thoughts which ignore Marxism become confused. The need for this has been recognized both inside and outside Russia since the Twentieth Congress of the Russian Communist Party. Thus Togliatti has criticized the dogmatic character of modern Marxism as ‘to a certain extent tending to a drying up of live debate on themes of our theory, for which we substituted writings full of quotations and stale phrases’. [1]

In particular certain fundamental problems have not been adequately discussed or need fresh treatment in the light of modern scholarship, chief among these are the meaning of freedom in relation both to causality as scientifically understood and in the political sense with which it is closely allied to the problem of historical inevitability.

The discussions arising out of the Twentieth Congress of the Russian Communist Party have revealed the weakness of Marxist theory on the question of democratic rights. It had been assumed that under socialism democracy is guaranteed by the very absence of class domination and needs no other safeguards than the measures necessary to exclude the possibility of counter-revolution.

This is quite inadequate. While it is of the first importance to establish the principle that democracy means primarily not formal self-government but the classless society in which exploitation has ended, and that it is no true democracy which leaves the blind play of forces in the social relations of men untouched, this is no reason for undervaluing constitutional rights and failing to insist on their preservation and extension under socialism. What is lacking here is a development of Marxist theory which takes into account both factors—the permanent contribution of liberalism and the communist understanding of the dependence of real democracy on socialism.

A similar weakness is to be seen in ethical theory where

[1] Togliatti, quoted in World News and Views, March 31st, 1956 (Vol. 3. No. 13).


Marxism has never got beyond the view that ethics is to be subordinated to the class struggle. This is not only inadequate as a statement of human values, but suggests that any means which secure victory may be justified.

Since it is the aim of the class struggle to replace our acquisitive society by a co-operative commonwealth, Marxists attach the highest ethical importance to the victory of socialism; but if ethical theory does not go beyond this and do justice to those moral ideals which are independent of class interests the further values of socialism will be undefined and there will be no safeguards against excesses.

A thorough Marxist examination of the question of human rights would have shown the importance of freer forms of criticism and of much greater tolerance of dissident opinion than has been allowed in the Soviet Union. A development of Marxist ethical theory might have established what is permissible and what is impermissible in the means adopted to achieve socialism.

Some of these questions are discussed in the following essays. What is attempted is the task of combining certain elements in the heritage of modern culture with the insights of Marxism. There can be no vital thinking for our age that does not do justice to both traditions.

If this involves the possibility of deviation from Marxist orthodoxy one can only plead that in questions of philosophy a policy of safety first is intellectual suicide. One cannot really think without thinking for oneself and that gives no guarantee of conformity with other people’s thinking. If liability to error is considered a good reason for preferring conformity I can only quote these words from Lenin:

‘We do not want anything to be accepted with the eyes shut, to be an article of faith. Everyone should keep his head tight on his own shoulders, and think out and verify everything for himself.’

If my non-Marxist critics, a little indignantly, declare that this is precisely what Marxists never do, I hope they will at least not blame me for being an exception to the rule.




Provenance of the Essays

1. Idealism and Ideologies: The basis of this essay appeared under the title Marxism and Modern Idealism in the Marxism Today Series edited by Professor Benjamin Farrington. A section has been added criticizing Zhdanov’s views on Partisanship in Philosophy.

2. Historical Inevitability: The Marx Memorial Lecture entitled Marxism and Its Critics delivered in the Conway Hall on March 24th, 1955, forms an essential part of this essay. In its fuller form, as printed, it contains also the substance of a lecture delivered at the London School of Economics in 1955 in reply to Isaiah Berlin’s August Comte Lecture on Historical Inevitability and Professor K. R. Popper’s criticism of Marxism in The Open Society.

3. On Human Rights: This was the Marxist contribution to the Symposium prepared by UNESCO for the Human Rights Commission of the United Nations in 1947, and published in 1949.

4. Marxism and Liberty: A lecture delivered at Oxford to the Present Question Conference in 1949.

5. Marxism and Ethics: The substance of this essay is to be found in two contributions to The Modern Quarterly: The Great Moral Muddle, in Vol. I, No. 4 (1946), and Marxism and Ethics, in Vol. V, No. 3 (1950).

6. The Marxist Answer to the Challenge of Our Time: During 1946 the B.B.C. ran a series of talks under the title of ‘The Challenge of Our Time’. The issues raised were somewhat inadequately dealt with, and seven lectures on the Communist Answer to the Challenge of Our Time were delivered by Professor Bernal, Professor Farrington, Professor Levy, Professor Haldane, and others. The series was introduced by the following lecture, which was entitled: ‘What is the Challenge of Our Time?’

7. Marxist Humanism: A lecture delivered to an Architectural Society and subsequently at Morley College in 1956.

8. Sartre and Society: The substance of two lectures delivered to the Personalist Group at the Conway Hall in 1956.

9. Berdyaev, Socialist and Heretic: A lecture delivered at Morley College in March, 1956.

10. Communism the Heir to the Christian Tradition: This appeared in Christianity and the Social Revolution, a symposium under the joint editorship of Canon Raven, Professor John MacMurray, Dr. Joseph Needham and the author in 1935, and no attempt has been made to revise it.

SOURCE: Lewis, John. Marxism and the Open Mind. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Books, 1957. xviii, 222 pp. Contents, p. v. Preface, pp. vii-xvii. Provenance of the individual essays copied from the introductory note to each chapter.

Marxism and Modern Idealism by John Lewis

Marxism and the Irrationalists by John Lewis

The Open Society: Paradox and Challenge (Introduction) by Stanley B. Ryerson

Vienna Circle, Karl Popper, Frankfurt School, Marxism, McCarthyism & American Philosophy: Selected Bibliography

British Marxism in Philosophy, Science, and Culture Before the New Left:
Essential Historical Surveys

Marx and Marxism Web Guide


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